When new coach Jim Harbaugh issued blue-collared mechanics shirts to the 49ers' players and coaches before the season, replete with name tags on the chest, his message was as clear as his motivational ploy was hokey: Get to work, and expect to get some dirt beneath your nails.
Harbaugh, 48, a self-described overachiever during his 14-year career as an NFL quarterback, has built a team in his image: The only things sexy about San Francisco are its 13--3 record and No. 2 seeding. The Niners are physical, efficient and unrelenting, and they can win on any tundra in the postseason because they don't beat themselves. They finished with NFL lows in interceptions (five) and lost fumbles (five), and they also had a league-high 38 takeaways.
No coach has done a better job than Harbaugh of syncing his offense, defense and special teams. The 49ers want to pound opponents with their eighth-ranked running game, led by veteran back Frank Gore (1,211 yards, eight TDs), and use their Pro Bowl specialists, punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers, to gain an edge in field position. San Francisco can afford to be patient because its defense, led by Pro Bowl end Justin Smith, ranked No. 2 in average points allowed (14.3) and first against the run, giving up just 77.3 rushing yards per game and three touchdowns on the ground. The D is particularly stingy in the red zone, where opponents were held to a 41.2 touchdown percentage, fourth lowest in the league.
If the Niners have a glaring weakness, it's their red zone offense: They have scored TDs on just 22 of 54 trips (40.0%) inside the opponent's 20-yard line. (Only the Rams and the Chiefs were worse.) San Francisco has just nine touchdowns in its last 29 red zone possessions (33.3%), and Alex Smith finished 12th with an 80.6 rating among the 17 quarterbacks with at least 55 red zone pass attempts, completing just 40.0% of his throws. (He did have eight touchdown passes inside the 20 and just one interception.)
Completions in the red zone are typically more difficult because the field is condensed and defenses drop more players into coverage—a sound strategy against Smith, who ranked third among regular starters with a 96.0 rating against the blitz. Still, if the 49ers want to make their playoff stay an extended one, they are going to have to be better at finishing what they start.
Alex Smith's interception rate, a career low and best in the NFL in 2011. Smith had by far the most accomplished season of his six-year career, with personal highs in passer rating (90.7) and completion percentage (61.4).
Average starting field position for the 49ers, tops in the league. San Francisco had a league-leading 27.2 yards per kickoff return and an NFL-best 10 punt returns of 20-plus yards.
ON THE SPOT
Defensive end Justin Smith figures to draw double teams, so outside linebacker Aldon Smith has to take advantage of the one-on-one blocking he's likely to get. The 6'4", 258-pound rookie from Missouri, who plays in passing situations, had at least one sack in five of his last seven games and finished with 14, tied for fifth in the league. He has excellent quickness, long arms and deceptive strength, and he gives coordinator Vic Fangio loads of flexibility in implementing his creative schemes. Whether blitzing or out of their base formation, the 49ers excelled at exploiting mismatches in 2011—thanks in large part to the Smiths.
JASON O. WATSON/US PRESSWIRE (GORE)
GORE VITAL The Niners need to leverage field position, and few backs move the chains better than Gore.
KYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE (SMITH)